Old Notes regarding Zip Drives from 1997

Below are notes that I wrote regarding Zip Drives in 1997. This information was on my old website before it was revamped. I am only reprinting this for archival purposes. The information included below should be considered subjective observations by a non-technical person trying to make intelligent analysis–You have been warned!

Notes regarding Iomega’s Zip Drive
Author:Dan Kanemitsu


        Iomega’s Zip drives were able to achieve remarkable success as mass storage devices.  The 3 1/2″ floppy disks are still great for storing and transporting simple text files and crude graphics, but can’t do much else anymore.  Its capacity is too limited in an age when the average size of image files are around 100KB and video files are each at least each several MB big.  The other option was the tape, but backing up on to tape media is a slow and cumbersome process best reserved for backing up entire systems and large data libraries.  Tapes are not very suitable for incremental archiving and another big problem with them is that there is no straight forward standard like the floppy, where almost any other machine can read a floppy your machine wrote.  There are QIC and other standards but a lot of the tape backup system uses proprietary media and/or data storage scheme.  And you gotta keep in mind, not every body has a tape backup unit.


        The Magnito-Optical Drive (aka MO drive) became the standard in Japan relatively easily, but in America, where tape backup units had already been prevalent, the high cost of MO drives detracted from the attractiveness of the devices, especially when compared to the tape backup units.  The fact that SCSI was not a popular standard in America also worked against the MO drive, but in any case, Iomega’s Zip drive filled the void that could have filled by MO drives.

        The market was screaming for a fairly reliable, relatively inexpensive mass storage device that could work like a floppy but had a storage capacity that was far greater.  Iomega’s Zip drive that can store 100MB on each disk (actually after you format it to MS-DOS, it comes out to more like 95.7MB) was the right device at the right time.  In America, Iomega’s Zip drive has become the defacto standard for medium sized removable storage.  SyQuest’s EzFlyer with 230MB each and Imation’s LS-120 120MB next generation floppy drives are still strong but for the moment it seems that the Iomega has been able to push aside the competition thanks to the (relatively) low cost of storage media and the drive itself.

Zip Drive Variations

        Iomega currently (12/97) makes 5 different versions of the Zip drive.  All the five different drives use the same media but each connect and interface with the host computer system in a separate way.  It was considerate and ingenious on the behalf of Iomega to market all these different variations.  People can thus choose the drive system that best fits their needs.  The problem is that not all the devices handle the same way.

External Parallel Interface Zip Drive [EPI Zip]
        These are the easiest to maintain and configure.  The one great advantage of the External Parallel Zip drive is that it can interface with nearly any IBM clone system.  As a rule, if the machine has a printer port, then this baby will work.
        Now there are some important prerequisites:  The printer port must be a bi-directional parallel port.  Some of the older systems don’t have this but anything that’s half way not obsolete will have this.  One thing they don’t mention in the documentation but something I have learned from personal experience is that the speed of the UART chip and/or the CPU can make a big difference in the performance of the Zip Drive.  If you have a slow computer (486SX25Mhz or 486DLC2) then be prepared for a long wait when you backup your HDD.  It took me some 3 hours to backup a PS/V’s 200MB HDD.  The same back up will take less then 20 minutes on a Pentium200.
        The UART chip is the chip that controls the flow of information going through the serial and parallel ports.
        You can play games off the Zip drive.  I have copied the various versions of ID software’s DOOM and DOOM2 onto the Zip and played it off the disk without any significant problems.  The game will take a little longer in loading while it’s loading the levels, but once the fighting begins, you should not suffer from any performance setbacks associated with the Zip drive.  Duke Nukem 3D, Rise of the Triad, Wolfenstein 3D have all been tested.  Blood will probably run but some of the newer games that require more then 90MB might not.
        Overall the external parallel version is the best is you are looking for the widest possible compatibility.

External SCSI Interface Zip Drive [ESI Zip]
        I haven’t had the chance to play with this one yet, but if the EPSI Zip drive (see below) running in SCSI mode is of any indication, these are true screamers.  Hard drive like performance coming from a removable storage medium.  My strong impression is that the EPSI is much faster then the III.  See below in my notes about EPSI Zips for more information on the performance of the ESI Zip.
        Interestingly enough Fry’s in Southern California was selling refurbished ESI for $10 below the refurbished EPI’s price.  Does this mean there is not as strong demand for the SCSI units?
        I don’t know if there is a significant difference between the Apple/Mac version and the IBM version of the EPSI Zips.

Internal IDE Interface Zip Drive [III Zip]
        Many pre-packaged systems sold from large OEM’s feature this version of the Zip drive.  The greatest advantage of the internal IDE version is that it is fairly fast and you can easily added to your existing hardware structure.  It will write and read off the disks at speeds that feel like old MFM or ESDI hard drives so it’s pretty fast.  The disadvantages to the III are that there are hardest to incorporate into a multiple partition hard drive environment and they seem to be most prone to breakdown due to the nature of the unit being internal.  Now I know it’s hard to believe that the internal ones are more prone to breakdown but all the experience that I have had with III indicates that they are.  More on this in the “Problems” section.

Internal SCSI Interface Zip Drive [ISI Zip]
        Probably the fastest of the Zip drives right next to the ESI and EPSI Zips.  All the SCSI interface Zips don’t have as many bottle necks in the flow of information.  There is no slow UART chip that might slow performance as in the case of the EPI Zips and we all know that SCSI is usually faster then E-IDE.  Rumor has is that the Zip drive was designed first and foremost as a SCSI device and Iomega added the parallel port features in order to expand its sales prospects and market share for removable mass storage.
        Of course the ISI suffers from the same limitations that the III are faced with regarding breakdowns.  Look below in the “Problems” section for more on the nature of the internal Zip drives.

External Parrallel/SCSI port Interface compatible Zip Drive [EPSI Zip]
        This newest addition are being marketed as the ZipPlus but from what I gather there has been no break through in the performance of the Zip drives themselves.  The speed is the same and the capacity is the same from what we had before.  The advantage of the EPSI Zips are that they can double as EPI Zips or EPSI Zips.  The EPSI Zip drive will automatically detect what kind of interface you are using and accommodate to that interface.  Very handy.
        The writing speed of an EPSI Zip in SCSI mode can go anywhere up to 1MB/sec in writing time.  A far cry form 0.5MB/min (18KB/sec) average performance of the EPI Zips.
        EPSI Zip drives are great for those of us that want to take advantage of a SCSI card in our system, but don’t want to forfeit the advantages of the parallel port.
        The ZipPlus comes with a whole bunch of software.


Disk comes flying out when ejected from the drive:
        This seems to be a problem that is associated with all the external versions of the Zip drive.  The spring seems to be a little too strong, resulting in the disks being catapulted out of the drive.  The problem seems to be the worst when the drive is placed horizontally.  The best you can do is to place your hand over the insertion slot and prevent the disk from plunging toward its death.  A friend of mine nearly lost all his hard earned data when the disk flew out and smashed on the concrete floor, cracking the disk into two.  Luckily, he could make another backup easily.

Internal IDE Zip always wants to be the D drive:
        The internal IDE (III) Zip seems to have a peculiar tendency of reporting itself as always asserting itself as the D drive with MS-DOS 6.22 and Win95.  No matter where you attach the III Zip along the E-IDE drive, it always wants to be D.  I’ve once I talked to the technical support people of System Commander and he also reported hearing that there is no way around that in DOS622/Win95.
        This peculiar phenomena does not seem to manifest itself in WinNT but be rest assured, WinNT has its own share of problems with III Zips.

The Windows NT internal IDE Zip drive nightmare:
        To be blunt, normal people are not suppose to install the drivers of the III Zip in WinNT.  Or at least it seems that way.
        Windows NT 4 seems to have a difficult time recognizing the internal Zip drive.  The problem is so bad that WinNT4 will stumble on the III during installation.  The III seems to emulate an IDE hard drive in order to interface with the system.  The problem is that it emulates it so well that the WinNT4 installation program thinks that the III is a hard drive.  A hard drive with no boot track.  With no media in the drive, the installation program cannot go on because it keeps looking for the MBR that it thinks is there.  You end up having to insert a disk so that the installation can go on.  The problem is now that the OS is under the impression that the III is a real hard drive.
        Under these circumstance, Iomega’s Guest program cannot find the Zip drive.  Without the Guest program there is no way to properly interface the Zip drive.  Well it also happens that the necessary Zip Setup program for WinNT4 is in the ZipTools disk that comes with your drive.  What does this mean?  The very program you need is stored in a form you do not have access to.
        Let’s review.  You need the WinNT4 Zip Setup disk to get the III Zip working, but that very program is only available on a Zip disk,  and the program that’s suppose to temporarily bridge this gasp does not work.
        Most people would call tech support at a point like this, but being the stupid and adventurous hacker-wannabe, I proceeded to find another way to counter this obstacle.
        For me, the solution was relatively simple.  I transferred the necessary Setup files onto my MO disk and installed it off of there.  After the necessary reboot, NT recognized the Zip drive like how it should.  Everything worked fine, until I wanted to remove the III drivers software.
        Below I discuss the problems with having two Zip drivers in one system.  In any case when I bought the ZipPlus (EPSI Zip), I needed to remove the drivers that were on the system already.  I figured that IDE drivers would not work well with a SCSI device.  To my horror I discovered that there was no uninstall program.  Furthermore, there was no documentation regarding uninstallation.
        Will the nightmares ever end?

Why do internal Zip drives suck?:
        I have noticed that internally mounted Zip drives are more prone to breakdowns.  I have no statistics to back up opinion up, but I have overheard others talk about how the internal sucks.
        I have had my internal IDE drive malfunction on me three times in 18 months.  Two of the malfunctions would be classified as “critical malfunctions” as the drive could read no information off the disks, and furthermore, destroyed the information on any disks that were inserted.  In the case of the third time, the malfunction did not last long and it fixed itself.  It was only a minor inconvenience.
        However the fact that the drive malfunctioned and destroyed information on disks when it was only reading data made me feel real uneasy about using a Zip drive as a backup device.  But these experiences also prompted me to think deep and hard about what is going on here.
        I considered the possibility that my room was too dusty.  But dust alone could not explain what was going on.  A friend of mine also owns a Zip and his place is far more dusty then my place.  The only difference between his Zip and mine was that mine Zip was an internal (III) and his was an external (EPI).
        The key to this mystery is to understand how the Zip drives physically work, and I’m under the impression that Zip drives are remarkably similar to hard drives.  So similar enough that Zip drives are prone to suffer from the same draw backs that are commonly attributed to hard drives.
        Hard drives read and write data on to the hard magnetic surface of the platter by having the read/write head float amazingly close above the media.  The distance between the head and the disk is so small, if the drive head was the size of a jumbo jet (Boeing 747), the distance between the head and the disk is about the size of a match box on its side.  When you have something comes in between the two objects, you have a physical head crash.
        Normally hard drives don’t have to worry about problems like this because the insides of the hard drive is hermetically sealed to prevent the introduction of foreign objects into the environment.  This is not the case with Zip drives.  Those units are less then air tight.  They have to be, or else there is no way to insert and remove the disks.
        So it makes sense that the Zip drives are a lot more susceptible to head crashing due to dust, but why are the internals more vulnerable than the externals?  The key word here is airflow.
        The internally mounted Zip dives have considerable amount of airflow coming through them.  Or at least it should.  That’s because the fans inside the power supply pull air in through the front and pump it out the back.  This seemingly innocent feature in the cooling mechanism of PC is the spells disaster for the internally mounted Zip drives.  That’s because all that air that’s being pulled in also pulls in lots of dust and it all accumulates along anything that partially blocks the flow.  In my system’s case, the Zip drive acts as a filter and lots of lint and dust manages to attach itself to the insides of the drive.
        This is not the case with external units.  These is no airflow in them.  This is why I believe the external Zip drives are a lot more reliable compared to the internal drives.  Let me know if you have any theories.

What is the deal with faulty Zip disks?:
        To my knowledge, there are no “bad” disks.  As I have described to you previously in section above, when a Zip drive breaks down, the consequences can be devastating upon any disk that is inserted into the faulty drive.
        Let’s say that the drive fails at one time.  You might dismiss it that the disk is bad and set it aside, through in another one and keep on working.  At this point, you probably have destroyed the data on the second disk.  The malfunctioning drive head will destroy the file structure in the MBR, preventing you from ever accessing the information on the disk.  If you hear a repetitive clicking sound (sounds something like “Ka-Chingk Ka-Chingk Ka-Chingk”), then the drive is choking on the disk and it might be a goner.

Two Zip drives in one system:
        So far I have not been able to find the secret to configuring multiple Zip drives in one system.  The Guest (Guest95 in the case of Win95) program seem to stop looking after it find the first drive.

Miscellaneous Notes:

Early production runs of the Zip drives went bad?
        This is not a rumor that has been confirmed but this news got a lot of attention in the English speaking newsgroups.  It seems that the production of Zip drives were taking place in the Philippines, and according to the sources on the newsgroups, there was short fall in the quality control for a time.  Supposedly, this happened in the early initial stages when they had started manufacturing Zip drives and there were suffering from problems that related to simplification and efficiency management of the production line.  Rumors are that there were fairly large number of individuals who bought the Zip drive in the early days that consequently discovered their Zip drive to be malfunctioning.  It has been reported that Iomega sent out instructions to retails to exchange any drives that are reported to by the user to be faulty.

The Tragedy with SCSI Zip drives forced to become IDE or Parallel device.
        Reports indicate that the Zip drive was designed initially as a SCSI device.  This makes sense considering the fact that the Zip drive’s performance is at it’s best when operating as a SCSI device.  But SCSI is not a protocol universal in America.  I mean a lot of people have SCSI but everybody has IDE.  Fearing that the American consumers might not find a device dedicated to the SCSI format to be as enticing, Iomega worked on the Zip drive so that it could be compatible with other protocols.  Iomega might have feared of the fate that MO drives suffered from as the MO was a dedicated SCSI device.  (However Ultra33 IDE compatible MO drives were released in Dec. 1997.)
        You can see the SCSI legacy alive in the other versions of the Zip drive, as even the external parallel Zip interfaces through a pseudo SCSI driver software.

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